If you are currently an administrator in the Church or you are planning to make leadership in church ministry a long term commitment, I’m going to give you a free piece of advice that will save your parish or local church an incredible amount of time and confusion, as well as improve the utilization of the talents of your members and potential volunteers. Here it is (and I feel like I should demand your VISA card number first, because this is so valuable):
Don’t change anything.
You heard me right. Don’t change anything. Instead, improve what you have. I have learned this lesson myself the hard way, working with the Church and with government entities as a therapist for my state. Change is difficult for the human organism—both for the ones originating it and for the ones who have to implement it and clean up the mess afterward. Baptism indeed should be challenging to all, but the challenge should emanate from the Word and Sacraments, not bureaucratic self-aggrandizement or utter administrative panic.
Now I have been around long enough to know that if someone is making a change—in personnel, teaching material, position titles, names of programs and the like—he or she will inevitably defend this on nebulous intellectual belief and particularly the emotional hope that “change equals improvement.” A few honest folks might admit to me privately that “changes” are financial necessities where two positions have been merged into a new third position with a new title to disguise the fact that in fact there is one less minister in the field.
I believe in a forward looking, prophetic church—local and universal—as much as the next guy, but there is much to be said for stability. We are approaching a Synod on the Family, and more than once we will hear about the importance of stable family life. Would it be fair to say that the same principle holds true in the “parish family,” that we have a collective set of family rituals in church and home that bind us together, that we might return to through the inevitable passages of the life cycle? Consider your own parish’s music: are you building a tradition for your children or grandchildren, a cross generational staple of unity and praise?
I suspect that were Jesus walking the earth today, we might quote him as saying “Rend your hearts, not your programs.” Change of externals distracts from the changes of the heart in ways we may not ever comprehend.
(1) Change is driven by discontent of some sort: personal, relational, financial. Do we ever embrace the best way to examine this discontent, which may have very personal—even subconscious—roots? It is not fair for a church minister to inflict unresolved personal tensions on the body of the faithful.
(2) Change is rarely, if ever, research based. Strategies, tools and techniques are bandied about by word of mouth or conventions, but do we have a proven track record for the kinds of change we have in mind? My guess is that the price of such research—from such eminently qualified entities as CARA-- is considered a luxury in most budget-strapped churches and dioceses at a time when it is needed most.
(3) Change is strangling our ability to communicate about ministry. The last generation has seen a proliferation of eccentric local nomenclature for positions which used to bear regional and national recognition. Remember directors of religious educations, assistant pastors, CYO? Recently I actually came across an “assistant director of discipleship” in my travels. Aside from confusion and frustration these local mutations have no standard job descriptions, no standards of training, no salary ranges, and no way to gauge effectiveness. There is a lack of transparency for parishioners who fund these ministries in many cases.
(4) Change is rarely initiated from the ground up, unless it involves parking facilities. Collegiality and subsidiarity, two of Vatican II’s most significant statements of principle, are non-existent factors in parochial life. Canon Law notwithstanding, there is a true moral sense in which the parish faithful own the parish; the right to change the life of the faithful in ministry and liturgy must be earned.
(5) Change implies a pejorative judgment of previous church leaders and personnel who served the community with distinction. It often overlooks the strong attachments of parishioners to previous personnel, programs, parish traditions of worship, etc.
(6) Change, as an administrative policy, runs the strong possibility of injustice to paid and lay ministers alike. If there is a genuine problem of performance, have the moral (and in many cases, legal) strategies been first exhausted? Do ministers have a written job description? Do ministers receive at least annual concrete performance assessments? Do administrators document problems and discuss them with individual ministers? Are ministers schooled or trained in the skills necessary for their work? Addressing workplace problems by quick-draw personnel changes almost always guarantees a repeat of problems with the new hire.
(7) Building on the above paragraph, a hasty and/or habitual recourse to personnel change is counter to the Catholic tradition of working through difficult relationships, most notably in marriage and the religious life.
(8) Change as “declaration of policy” is rarely convincing or effective. Educators speak of their profession as behavioral change, built upon a lengthy cursus of principle and practice. St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of virtue as the gradual acquisition of the habit of sequential good works. Effective change comes about “in the doing,” not from the desk.
(9) A recourse to change as improvement is usually overkill: it is often the case that ministerial programs are more often in need of more spade work, training and patience, as participants and leaders develop a natural rhythm. Every cancelled parish initiative drives another nail in the coffin of ministerial continuity.
(10) Children develop best in an environment of discipline and stability. Catholics of all ages have more freedom to cultivate spirituality in a stable environment of consistency and quality.
So, before you do anything rash….